by Abhishek Chakrabarti
A part and apart.
That’s my Asian-American experience in a nutshell. And as much as any person of color can attest to some degree of otherness within the context of America’s white-dominant cultural hegemony, my focus in this instance trains its lens on the otherness of being a South Asian under Asian-America’s socio-political umbrella.
Although by all academic measures South Asians should be united with our East and Southeast Asian family, not just geographically but by our shared immigration histories and experiences, cultural similarities, and of course by the aforementioned otherness, there remains a certain and uncomfortable disconnect where outside of the spheres of the cognoscenti (and maybe even to some extent within), the South Asian jostles for recognition and inclusion.
Putting aside the muck and mire that comes saddled with the considerations of national or ethnic origin, there exists an altogether more nefarious and unfortunate reality, one that isn’t often discussed within the Asian-American community that is at the heart of this disconnect: perception based on phenotypic representation. The oversimplification of which is that we South Asians, to the common (mis)perception, just don’t look the part. As I’ve indicated before, outside of the circles of the informed Asian-American, this particularly tends to be a problem, and having experienced this first-hand on numerous occasions, has for a lack of a better term, colored my perception of the Asian American experience.
I grew up in, and have lived most of my life, in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California, where the Asian communities, and in particular the East Asian communities are strong, vibrant and by population, numerous and growing. I went to U.C. Berkeley where Asians outnumbered whites as the demographic majority. All along the way, my experience as a South Asian in relation to my East Asian counterparts has been one of being the brown-sheep cousin begrudgingly accepted into the flock but only after having had to explain my position, and even then being relegated to the periphery as someone who is technically “but not really.” Even among some of those that are ostensibly aware, I’ve picked up that slight hesitation that makes full accepting inclusion and recognition seem to come with an invisible asterisk.
Yes, things are better today than they were during my elementary years in the ’80s or my college years in the mid-to-late ’90s, but there still remains to some extent that phenotypic divide, that racial uniform, that castes accusatory glances in my direction. The “what’s he doing here?” sideways look. The “oh, okay,” momentary pause that paints me as an other amongst others. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not something that I would deem to be pervasive or a common occurrence, but I am no longer surprised or taken aback when it happens. I do feel, and my experiences indicate, that as an American of South Asian descent, my reality is that I have no socio-politcal home, so-to-speak. I am American, but not really. Asian-American, but not really.
I am at best, a part and apart.
Abhishek Chakrabarti is an admitted dilettante with a degree in a field of which he has made little use. When not absolutely consumed with doing nothing in particular, he freelances as a photographer and aspires to one day actually write something worth reading. His most frequently used word is,’dude.’